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Perspective

The good, the bad, and the biters

It’s high time that behavior screening joins the requirements for rescued dogs put up for adoption in Massachusetts.

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I’VE HAD 20 FOSTER DOGS in my New Jersey home since late 2010. All arrived via a modern-day underground railroad that has brought hundreds of thousands of dogs to Northeast homes from Southern shelters over the past few decades — and that has exploded in scope since the mid-2000s. The facilities where these dogs originate can be horrific, some with gas chambers and kill rates higher than 90 percent. The rescuers down South work with rescuers up here, who then turn to people like me to foster or adopt the dogs.

Most of my fosters were healthy and happy, as promised. A few supposedly healthy puppies showed up with everything from diarrhea-inducing coccidia to mange. And one, an adult retriever mix named Sara, said to be ultra-sociable, attacked my dog and bit me five times.

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While I support the idea of rescue, its execution can be flawed, a reality that has become more evident as the South-to-North pipeline expands. Massachusetts is believed to be the first New England state to react to the trend, in 2005 enacting an emergency order that required out-of-state rescue dogs to be quarantined until proved healthy. Michael Cahill, director of animal health for the state Department of Agricultural Resources, still hears stories like mine. One example he points to is a dog from the South who had a health certificate, but after being adopted and X-rayed in Massachusetts was found to have a tranquilizer dart in its abdomen.

To circumvent the Massachusetts regulations, officials say, some rescue groups simply told adopters to meet them over the border. New England was caught in a geographic game of Whac-a-Mole, trying to ensure that only healthy dogs were being transported by responsible rescues. Dr. Scott Marshall, the state veterinarian in Rhode Island, says that state saw parvo cases blossom from two or three each year into two or three each week in recent years before enacting regulations that mirror the Bay State’s. Today, all the New England states have rules.

Now, Massachusetts is preparing to announce public hearings on amended rules that would add another standard, and rightly so. While Cahill doesn’t want to stop adoptions of even the most challenging dogs if someone is willing to take them, he wants to mandate behavior screening and disclosure statements about each dog’s temperament.

From what I’ve seen at home and at shelters, most of the dogs in the cages are sweet and just plain unlucky. But some have problems. Even the friendliest dog can be traumatized by transport and respond with fear. And dogs like Sara, who turned on me, shouldn’t be going into homes at all without professional assessment.

During debate last year about requiring temperament testing at shelters in Los Angeles, advocates said it has helped to boost adoptions by 60 percent at more than 150 facilities nationwide. Adoptions are more likely to succeed because rescuers know whether a dog needs, say, an active family with children or a quiet condo with senior citizens. At the same time, critics say temperament testing is far from scientific and that it can be a death sentence for a dog who cowers or growls when it’s natural to feel scared.

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The state’s forthcoming language on behavior screening will no doubt spark debate. But, in general, Cahill’s idea is sound. He wants to ensure that rescue operations are as diligent in figuring out how a dog behaves as they are about assessing its health.

Though some complained in 2005 that the added costs of meeting the new health standards in Massachusetts would shut down rescues, the numbers have, in fact, increased. Three years ago, approved rescue groups were bringing about 10,000 dogs a year into the state. Today, that number is 14,000. The same is likely to be true with the newly proposed rules about behavior standards. An even more reliable rescue system will ultimately mean more successful adoptions and more advocates for the cause.

BY THE NUMBERS

Nearly 300

The number of groups registered in Massachusetts to rescue dogs.

Kim Kavin is author of the award-winning book Little Boy Blue: A Puppy’s Rescue From Death Row and His Owner’s Journey for Truth. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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